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Mason researcher helps identify five pairs of supermassive black holes

November 21, 2017   /   by John Hollis

NASA photo

A George Mason University researcher is among a group of astronomers who recently identified a large cluster of supermassive black holes in the center of various galaxies.

George Mason’s Shobita Satyapal and her fellow scientists discovered 10 feeding supermassive black holes. Each of the five pairs of black holes are a result of the collision of two neighboring galaxies, said Satyapal, a professor of physics and astronomy in Mason’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“Before our work, there weren’t that many that were known,” she said. “Supermassive black hole pairs are important to understand. They can help us understand how black holes can grow up to a billion times the mass of the sun. They are also important in predicting the rate of supermassive black hole mergers, which will give rise to the loudest gravitational wave events in the universe.”

The international team’s findings, first published in the Astrophysical Journal in October, were the culmination of roughly three years of intensive research to reveal the supermassive holes obscured by large amounts of dust and gas.

Satyapal and the team used data obtained from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Wide-Field Infrared Sky Explorer Survey (WISE) and the ground-based Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona to come up with their results.

The revelations could have significant implications in the growing field of gravitational wave physics, in particular because most major galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their core.

“So that’s the big question in astronomy,” Satyapal said. “How do you get those one billion solar mass black holes in the centers of galaxies pretty early in the universe? How do they form? How do they grow?”

More intriguing yet is that galaxies often merge, leaving the black holes at the center of each to orbit one another for a period before eventually coalescing into one. The merging of dual massive super black holes would create an even bigger black hole, and the merging event would create the loudest gravitational sirens in the universe.

“There’s all kinds of science to be gained from studying these gravitational waves,” Satyapal said.